May is a month dedicated to Our Lady or St Mary and of course across the British Isles, there are a number of Lady Wells. Ireland is a country which is rich in such wells and in County Wexford is perhaps the most famed of all of them, a well which is part of a larger sacred landscape. This is a sacred landscape which doubtlessly dates back beyond the times of pre-Christianity. Indeed, a natural formation at Carnsore Point is believed to be a Druid Altar, and the name Cluain-na-mBan translating as ‘the meadow of the women’ suggests the site could have originated as a Druid community ran by women and as such Our Lady would be a natural dedication.
Perhaps more a peninsular than an island, the supposed island covers around thirty-two acre plot sitting a tidal lake, reached by a causeway. Beside the modern altar encased in class is the leaning barbican tower of a medieval Norman castle which once protected this area. Beyond it, the ruins of a church, where tombs and graves lie in sad desolation and shamrock grows from their bones. Both were built by a de Lamporte and the church was used up until the 18th century.
The island’s Christian heritage begun in the 7th century A.D, when a St. Abban founded a community there and dedicated it to Our Lady. Saint Abban’s Vita is well recorded in both the Codex Dublinensis and Codex Salmanticensis, and he is recorded to have travelled to Rome and been well educated by a number of saints such as his uncle St. Ibar. It does seem strange that no well is dedicated to him on the island.
Little is recorded of early pilgrimage to either the island or the well. However, its importance can be hinted at when a leaden Bula of Pope Martinus V (1417-31) was found suggesting that papal indulgences were made to those who visited the site. In 1607, Pope Paul V gave a plenary indulgence to those who after Confession and Holy Communion would visit the church of Our Lady on the Island on the Feast (8th September) of Our Lady and the Assumption (15th August).
After the severe prosecution of the Cromwell period, although Pope Benedict, between 1740 and 1743 tried to suppress pilgrimages he had the only official permissible locations being one being Our Lady’s Island and Lough Derg. The Bishop of Ferns was involved with a large procession of the Blessed Sacrement around the Island and high mass was said at the newly consecrated parish church. However, it was not until 1897, that a regular Pilgrimage Procession by local Parish Priest, Father Whitty. This has grown over the years and thousands now attend.Two wells exist in the area. The more famed and interesting is that of Our Lady’s Well, whose whitewashed chamber overlooks the island below. It is found by passing over a stile and through a couple of fields, look for our lady on the wall on the lane…and a sign! The spring fills an oval chamber and empties into a ditch through a pipe. Overlooking the spring is a small figure of the Virgin and steps go down to the water. Perhaps the most unusual feature is a metal turn-stile. A number of claims are made for its waters, but I know of no specific cures. From its position it is clear that pilgrims would start their journey from the well and after having refreshed themselves would process down to the island.
On the island is another well. The provenance of this well is unclear, it does not appear to have been present in the 1900s when the shrine was constructed nearby and is probably either a domestic farmer’s well or else drains off the farmland; consequently a sign warns of not drinking it. Around this well can be seen a number of figurines probably given as offerings, including a snow globe and a Buddha. It appears that this well probably because of proximity to the pilgrim’s procession vies to replace the most venerable Lady’s Well.
Even on a fine summer’s day, one can both experience the peacefulness of the site and imagine the hoards of pilgrims as the process around it, sometimes with one foot in the water! A romantic and wonderful place and highly recommended.
Interested in Irish holy wells follow this excellent blog
Note my hard drive isnt working so I have had to use a wikicommons image.